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U.S. Foreign Assistance Programs Fall Short of Addressing Climate Change Risk

The crew of USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) loads boxes of food and water donated by USAID during humanitarian aid missions to Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Tyler J. Clements

By Dr. Marc Kodack

The Department of Defense has been incorporating climate change into its strategic policy documents for more than 10 years (e.g., herehere, and here). Despite White House pressure to the contrary, it currently is expanding how it addresses climate change to address Congressional requirements contained in recent National Defense Authorization Acts (here). Less visible, but no less important are other federal agencies that are focused on foreign assistance which could complement DoD’s security cooperation/assistance efforts (here). The Congressional Research Service (2020) released a short report on four foreign assistance agencies–U.S. Agency for International Development(USAID), the Peace Corps, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation(DFC)–and if their current planning efforts are reducing climate change risk to their own operations and programs. The result is that these current planning efforts fall far short of comprehensively addressing climate change risk, especially when compared to the more robust efforts under the last administration.

USAID currently requires that an assessment of climate change risk be included for every regional and country development strategy as an annex. The risk assessment is used to determine if local USAID objectives will be affected by climate change. The assessment consists of four steps–review current climate related information, perform a screening assessment using the Climate Risk and Management Tool, incorporate the results into the overall strategy, and discuss what climate risks were identified and how they would be addressed in the annex. Examples of current climate change risk screening/assessments include Afghanistanand Zambia. However, not all the country strategies (here) contain an annex so the mandatory guidance is inconsistently applied leaving the assessment of climate risk for every country with a USAID program as a to-be-done task by an undetermined future date.

The Peace Corps volunteer  mentions that the locations where volunteers may be sent should include an assessment of whether the area is vulnerable to natural disasters. The manual does not mention climate change and thus, there is no assessment of climate risk. However, in the agency’s fiscal year 2019 report, climate change or climate resilience are mentioned as part of the agriculture or environment sectors, two of the six programmatic sectors that volunteers participate in around the world. These in-passing references are unanchored to any guidance or policy related to climate change or climate risk. It is thus unclear what these terms mean for actions within the Peace Corps’ sectors because they are unlinked to corporate goals or strategy related to climate change.

The MCC’s climate guidance is contained in its’ environmental guidelines that incorporate the International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standards on Environmental and Social Sustainability. Using these standards, MCC addresses climate risk to the sustainability of its’ programs as well as how these programs may affect climate risk. For example, MCC programs have invested in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and increasing resilience to climate change, e.g., IndonesiaNiger. Given the concern of financial risks of climate change reported elsewhere in the federal government (here), the risks of climate change to MCC programs is likely increasing..

The DFC assesses climate vulnerability for all its’ new proposed investments as part of its current policy. Direct greenhouse gas reductions are a priority for project’s that are funded. It is developing financial tools to assess climate risk.

Incorporation of climate change and climate risk into agency foreign assistance programs exposes these agencies and more importantly, the people that these agencies employ or assist, to climate risk that could significantly disrupt local and regional population livelihoods. This may partially reflect the absence of an enforced legislative requirement to explicitly address climate risk in each agency. If there was a government-wide legal requirement to incorporate climate risk into policy and implementation guidance, the outcome would increase climate resilience across an agency’s own operations as well as all its’ programs. The result would be more consistency across agencies to determine if they are at risk and if their programs are at risk. For foreign assistance, whether it was from DoD or other foreign assistance agencies, such as those mentioned above, the results would be greater integration and ideally, complementarity so that U.S. foreign policy objectives would have a greater chance of being met.

Dr. Marc Kodack is Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security and former Sustainability and Water Program Manager in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Sustainability.

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